Holy Week in the Secular City

April 18th, 2014

A generation ago, New York City offices closed at noon on Good Friday. The workers poured out of their buildings and into the churches for the start of the traditional three hour preaching services.

Today, Good Friday is either a holiday–in which case, the workers aren’t in the city at all, or it is a work day, so that the workers don’t have time to attend a long service. At Incarnation last Sunday, a Persian Day Parade on Madison Avenue interrupted our main Palm Sunday service. This Easter Sunday, a major playoff game is scheduled to take place at nearby Madison Square Garden.

Much has been written about the secularization of Western society. While the above examples show how the broad trend against religion affects Christians on the ground, some of these comments are off the mark. Christianity is actually growing in Manhattan, for example, as many small evangelical congregations are forming.

Which prompts the hopeful thought that as Christianity becomes more and more counter-cultural and underground, it may re-capture the spiritual confidence of the early Christians. In the meantime, a Happy Easter to all. –J. Douglas Ousley

A Flood of Controversy

March 31st, 2014

In a delayed reaction to the amazing success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood is producing its own politically-corrected Bible movies. While Noah in the eponymous recent film remains firmly patriarchal (he is played by Russell Crowe, after all), he is determined to abort his own grandchildren so that the human race will no longer pollute the earth. The movie features unintentionally hilarious animated rocks called, “Watchers,” who are supposedly keeping tabs on the fallen human race.

Noah refers to the Biblical deity only as the Creator, but as you can imagine, some people of faith have been upset by the extravagant liberties taken with the sacred text.While people of faith should  be as uncomfortable in the presence of this aesthetic mess as Crowe seems to be in acting in it, they may be confident that the faith of our fathers and mothers will remain unscathed. –J. Douglas Ousley


Ashes to Go, Cheap Grace?

March 3rd, 2014

An email yesterday from the director of communications of the Diocese of New York asked if we were having “ashes to go” on Ash Wednesday. I replied that ashes were administered in the church throughout the day, from 8 am to 7 pm.

I recognize that this is stretching the rules; the Book of Common Prayer only allows ashes to be given within the context of the special liturgy for Ash Wednesday. Indeed, our local Roman Catholic Church has posted a sign that ashes will only be distributed during the three masses of the day “following church law.”

Even so, the idea of “ashes to go” is troubling. Ashes are a sign of penitence and mortality–surely not subjects to be linked with drive-through lines for coffee and hamburgers. Surely, anyone seeking to remember that he or she “is dust and to dust [he or she] shall return” can take a minute to enter the church to receive the ashes. They might even have another minute to pray before and after that event.

Going out on the sidewalk and randomly dabbing passers-by with ashes is the latest attempt by Episcopal churches to attract attention and members. I wonder if it is a step in the right direction.   –J. Douglas Ousley

Indaba Encore

February 3rd, 2014

Some of you may have seen this comment on a previous post. It comes from Incarnation’s former  Junior Warden, Mark Lulka:

>>”Indaba” is not a great word.  When I first heard it, I immediately thought of “intifada”, and had to check the spelling and definition.  The Episcopal Church should steer clear of trends and the use of language that can be misconstrued.<<

In my recent trip to the UK (of which more soon), I noticed that while the Diocese of New York delegation often used the term, the concept of “indaba” seemed pretty foreign to Church of England clergy. Maybe the word has already outlived whatever usefulness it once had. –J. Douglas Ousley

How Episcopal is Our Church?

January 8th, 2014

Tomorrow, I will be traveling to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to meet with the Bishop of New York. We will be making final plans for Bishop Dietsche’s official visit to our link Diocese of London later in the month.

This will be the first time I have entered the office of a New York bishop since I was ordained to the priesthood in 1973. I note this not to express disappointment at not being favored with the attention of my superiors all these years. Rather, it has struck me that, given the time and effort our church puts into electing and supporting bishops, they should somehow be more crucial in day-to-day parish life. Unless the bishops need money or the parish has problems, hierarchy and parish function on separate levels that barely touch.

The word, “Episcopal” in our title means, “having bishops.” We do indeed possess bishops, but the extent to which their presence defines us seems to me to be exaggerated. –J. Douglas Ousley

TREC Drek?

December 23rd, 2013

I have been waiting for something new from the Episcopal Church headquarters that promises to reverse the escalating decline in numbers and the vanishing Episcopal identity. I should be careful what I pray for, since the best the church has come up with is a Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church (“TREC”).

This committee has just issued a letter to all of us Episcopalians. It promises many new ideas and proposals but in itself offers no specific suggestions other than trying to “reach out” to non-white minorities who have been outreached for decades with little success. Some will find the prose warm and unctuous and not quite matching the seriousness of the subject.

At least, the powers that be are trying, though. Having been a member of various church task forces over the years, I know that these meetings are time-consuming and occasionally maddening. All power to the people who are devoting their energies to TREC.

We should be grateful, too, that the problem of numerical decline seems finally to be sinking in at the highest levels–as it is in our own diocese. For Christmas, let’s be positive and grateful. –J. Douglas Ousley

New Bishop for New York

December 10th, 2013

Last Saturday, the Convention of the Diocese of New York elected a new Suffragan (assistant) Bishop, the Rev. Allen Shin. Shin is rector of St. John’s Church in Huntington, Long Island.

Few people seem to have anticipated this result. Two of the women candidates had strong records of leadership within the diocese; the African-American male in the race also had impressive local credentials. In a diocese where identity politics have always played an important role, the selection of a Korean-American immigrant is surprising. One of the candidates was a lesbian, yet despite the gender and sexual politics of recent years, a straight male was elected–and the gay issue was not mentioned publicly the entire day.

Maybe the diocese is pulling back from the divisive issues of the past. Or, maybe, diversity has become the new normal, and we New York Episcopalians are growing up. –J. Douglas Ousley

Bishops Get What They Want

November 26th, 2013

I have been collecting notes for a series of sermons next year about Christians that I have been fortunate enough to know.

One of these was the Rev. Canon Edward West, Sub-Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Although an eccentric, mystic, and altogether unforgettable character, Canon West was also shrewd in the ways of the world.

Particularly in the ways of the Church in the world. He once remarked to me, “Bishops always get what they want.” At the time we spoke, I was serving in a very successful parish whose rector seemed to be able to function with great independence from any higher authority. And I knew that in the Episcopal Church, great power also resides in local vestries, which control their money and have the lion’s share of authority in appointing their rectors.

Yet we are seeing in our own diocese the truth of Canon West’s observation. The indaba program of dialogue would never have gotten started without a powerful and sustained push from the top. In the near future, I imagine parishes in New York and its suburbs will be closed or merged that seemed to be immortal. And whoever happens to be elected Suffragan Bishop of New York on December 7, the diocesan Bishop’s policies will prevail.

“Episcopal” comes from the Greek word for “bishop.” It is no wonder that this is the name of our church. –J. Douglas Ousley

Here we go again…

November 4th, 2013

I am sorry to have been delinquent in posting, but I do have a rare solid excuse: I got married!

Anyway, my honeymoon is over and the church political scene has become very active locally. I haven’t been following closely the Suffragan Election slated for December 7, because the candidate I have wanted from the beginning is among the finalists. I’ll report soon on how the election is proceeding.

Meanwhile, the first regular Convention of the Diocese of New York is on for this Saturday, November 9. So far, budget and clergy compensation seem to be the only issues (nice, outward, evangelistic subjects, those.) Plus small group discussions called “Indaba,” which will provide another alternative to doing something about the church-wide  decline. May the Good Lord inspire us, nevertheless. –J. Douglas Ousley

Moving Beyond Band-aids?

September 18th, 2013

The latest talk in high Episcopal circles is about “new mission direction.”

A colleague of mine told an anecdote that illustrated the problems with old mission direction. He was visiting a Navaho reservation this summer as part of his own outreach work (he is part Native American himself), and a truck drove up to the house where he was staying and delivered two huge boxes. One contained a vast quantity of Reese’s Pieces, the other held stuffed animals.

The delivery turned out to be the product of an Eagle Scout’s project to help the Indians–though they had not been consulted, and though some 65% of that tribe was diabetic! The truck had driven past two large No Trespassing signs. The person with whom my friend was staying remarked, “See what we have to put up with?”

The trend now seems to be to involve the people to be helped directly and to hold them accountable for the decisions they have made on their own behalf. That would be sweeter than Reese’s Pieces. –J. Douglas Ousley